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Laval Rocket 2020-21 Season Preview

Laval Rocket 2020-21 Season Preview

LAVAL, QC – The Laval Rocket are set to begin the fourth season in team history once the Canadian Division opens play for 2020-21. The Rocket, along with the four other teams in the division, will begin play later than the rest of the American Hockey League, as local government regulations held up the beginning of the season.  

Initial Schedule:  

All games for the month of February will be played at the Rocket’s temporary home for the season, the Bell Centre in Montréal.  

  • Friday, February 12, 2021, vs. Belleville at 7:00 pm

  • Saturday, February 13, 2021, vs. Belleville at 1:00 pm

  • Tuesday, February 16, 2021, vs. Belleville at 7:00 pm 

  • Friday, February 19, 2021, vs. Belleville at 7:00 pm 

  • Monday, February 22, 2021, vs. Manitoba at 7:00 pm

  • Wednesday, February 24, 2021, vs. Manitoba at 7:00 pm

  • Friday, February 26, 2021, vs. Manitoba at 7:00 pm

  • Saturday, February 27, 2021, vs. Manitoba at 7:00 pm

Head Coach:  

Joël Bouchard returns to the helm for a third season. The Rocket bench boss joined the organization for the 2018-19 campaign after honing his head coaching skills with the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada in the QMJHL. In his first two years with the Rocket, his squad has never seen the playoffs. In 2018-19, the team finished 26th in the league and was categorically nowhere near playoff contention; last season, the playoff push was abruptly halted by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Bouchard’s overall record with the Rocket show just how recent of an addition he is to the team. Despite failing to make the postseason in 2018-19, he still has a winning record – over 138 games played; he boasts 60 wins, 58 losses, and 20 overtime or shootout losses (60-58-20).  

Bouchard, a native of Montréal, has gotten off to a promising start as the captain of the Good Ship Development. Although the team has yet to experience play after the regular season, Bouchard’s tenure with the club has been a bright spot on the development horizon. Under his tutelage, prospects are becoming impressive members of the organization and have revitalized the long-dead excitement among Canadiens fans for the storied club’s future.  

Those two seasons with Laval – one of which was shortened by a global health crisis – shouldn’t color your opinion on Bouchard past the surface-level. As he has settled into both his new role as a head coach in the AHL and with the Rocket, Bouchard’s leadership has improved the team where it counts – in the standings. With that experience under his belt, this strange season shouldn’t be any more than Bouchard can handle.  

Captain:  

Xavier Ouellet is reprising his role as captain for a third year.  

Ouellet, a veteran defenseman with 172 games of NHL experience with the Red Wings and Canadiens, was named the Laval Rocket’s second captain on February 12, 2019.  

Last season, during the National Hockey League’s return to complete the postseason, Ouellet was a member of the squad the Canadiens took into the Toronto bubble. He played 10 games with the CH on his chest.  

Ouellet brings strong, reliable leadership to a young Rocket team.  

Last Season:  

The 2019-20 season was cut short by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic but not before the Rocket played 62 games. The squad in Laval posted a 30-24-8 record, good for 68 points.  

Last season’s record was an improvement on the one the team posted in 2018-19. They closed out the season 6th in the North Division and 10th in the Eastern Conference.  

The Rocket were outside of the playoff bubble and in the throes of a playoff push when the season was halted. Although they didn’t have very much ground to make up to land in a playoff spot, that chance never came. Instead of tossing around “what-ifs,” focus on the promising signs of improvement that the club made in the standings between Bouchard’s first season and second as head coach  

2019-20 Season Summary:  

Let’s take a more in-depth look into the 2019-20 season.  

The Rocket launched the season on October 4, 2019, with some new faces and a sophomore head coach. Players like Cayden Primeau, Otto Leskinen, and Ryan Poehling joined the team when the Canadiens wrapped up training camp. Familiar faces such as Ouellet, Charlie Lindgren, and Jake Evans returned to Place Bell to start another year. Defenseman Cale Fleury started the season in Montréal, and goaltender Michael McNiven was tasked with defending the first of many creases in the ECHL.  

The Canadiens had a massive list of injuries last season that ate into the Rocket roster, forcing them to dig into the ECHL for reinforcements. The lack of stability between the pipes also presented a challenge. When Keith Kinkaid was assigned to Laval on December 2, 2019, Primeau was called up to replace him. Primeau played two games with Montréal before Lindgren took on backup duties full-time. McNiven was recalled from the Norfolk Admirals on February 3, 2020, setting the team on a three-goalie rotation where Kinkaid’s play continued to suffer.  

Jesperi Kotkaniemi joined the Rocket on February 1, 2020, and the club looked poised to push for a playoff spot. Kotkaniemi suffered an injury to his spleen on March 6. The season was postponed indefinitely on March 12 – the remainder of the season was canceled on May 10, 2020.  

Hot or Not? 

The 2020-21 Laval Rocket are more than a little hard to make predictions about. The team lost a few key pieces this offseason and brought in some new faces in their stead. Most of the roster changes are neither positive nor negative – they’re mostly lateral. The team looks different than it did last season, cutting loose some of the players fans are used to seeing and bringing in rookies and new faces to replace them. The other concern, the goalie situation, looks to have been shored up, as well.  

All told, the outlook is lukewarm, but this is a team that can be coached into success.  

Who’s Back? 

  • Ouellet: as previously stated, the captain is back. The Rocket got younger and more inexperienced in the extended offseason. They will need to rely on his experience and leadership to be cohesive.  
  • Fleury: after starting last season with the Canadiens and this season on their taxi squad, the hard-hitting blueliner returns to his post in Laval to start the campaign. Fleury is a developing prospect who appears to be waiting to break out – his progress in that development should be evident as he settles into a new season.  
  • Primeau: Primeau is going into his sophomore season with the Rocket and has more experience this year than last year. He was a solid goaltender for Laval last year. With a couple of seemingly reliable backup options, Primeau will have more support in the crease than he did for the majority of 2019-20.  

Who’s Through? 

  • Karl Alzner: the Canadiens bought-out the veteran defenseman’s contract before free agency opened. The move came as no surprise due to Alzner’s exorbitant contract, but it did take away a strong leader within the team. His absence can be made up for by existing players, but his experience would have been valuable to young players.  
  • Charles Hudon: He’s spending the season in Lausanne, Switzerland. Last year, he was Laval’s leading goal scorer, and that offensive power will surely be missed.  
  • Evans: Evans is currently centering the fourth line up in Montréal. He’s a defensively responsible playmaker who had absolute trust from the coaching staff. With Evans playing for the big club, the Rocket’s centerline will see a massive shakeup.  
  • Dale Weise: Weise walked in free agency. With him gone, the Rocket lose veteran experience and the grit that Weise has brought to every team he has played for.  

Who’s New? 

  • Vasily Demchenko: Habs General Manager Marc Bergevin signed the Russian goaltender to add depth to the goalie system. Demchenko comes to the Rocket from the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), where he posted solid numbers despite playing behind a team that struggled defensively. He shores up the goalie depth and provides Primeau an opportunity to play at his best.  
  • Jordan Weal: Weal spent last season as a member of the Canadiens. Weal has played in the AHL before with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and the Manchester Monarchs. Weal’s experience at the NHL level of play should prove valuable to young players transitioning into professional hockey.  
  • Kaiden Guhle: coming off a strong performance at this year’s World Juniors, Guhle joins the team as a rookie. Guhle is committed to the Rocket for as long as the Western Hockey League isn’t playing. He brings back some of the grit and defensive responsibility lost when Weise and Alzner left the ranks. Guhle’s tenure on the Rocket may be cut short by the WHL resuming play. Still, while he is in Laval, his development could very well be jumpstarted by Bouchard and company.  

What to Watch For? 

  • While there were some significant losses, most of the core players are returning to the lineup for opening night. The Rocket can continue to build on the chemistry they have been developing over the last two seasons to fill in some of the gaps in the depth chart.  
  • Primeau’s sophomore season should further his development. Look for more usage of Primeau as the primary goaltender and with that more obvious growth as a player. With two reliable backup options, the goaltending should be more consistent this year.  
  • Continuing the playoff push. The Rocket are still searching for stable footing in the league. Being successful is the best way to ensure that footing is on solid ground. With uncertainty surrounding playoffs of any kind, the Rocket have some momentum to build off of from last season, however far removed they are from it. A push for a good outcome is not only ideal for the young team; it is also necessary to cement their identity within the league. In an all-Canadian division, this season is the perfect opportunity to do exactly that while also forging some exciting relationships with the three other Canadian teams and the (temporarily) Canadian Stockton Heat.  

The Rocket begin play on Friday, February 12, against the Belleville Senators, a club whose parent team has been fostering a love/ hate relationship with the Canadiens. This season is sure to be a weird one, full of strange upsets and unpredictable outcomes. Still, I can speak for all of us when I say I am just glad to see the Rocket playing hockey again.

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    Deanna McFeron covers the Laval Rocket for The Sin Bin. Follow and interact with her on Twitter @SinBinRocket.

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